4 Lessons from Black Friday 2018 (based on online retail data)

Black Friday 2018 was (a bit) bigger, bolder, and brighter - but has it out-scaled itself?

By Andy Mulcahy

And, breathe.

Black Friday is once again in the rear-view mirror for retailers and now the post-mortem takes place, to understand what happened (and when), how it’s changed again (as it seems to do every year) and what all this tells us about where it’s heading next.

This article shares a few of IMRG’s observations from the frantic online retail Black Friday period 2018.

1. The spending was frantic, but not that frantic

First, a few numbers, as Black Friday is all about the big numbers. At the start of the month we said it was more accurate to think of this event as ‘Blackvember’ than Black Friday, as there is never any consensus around when it should start or how long it should go on for; and so it proved.

We estimate that the actual spend on UK online retail sites on Black Friday 2018 reached £1.49bn, up +7.3% on the same day last year. While that of course sounds impressive, it was actually substantially below our original forecast of +13.2%. This doesn’t mean that people weren’t spending necessarily; it may be that shoppers reacted to the earlier campaigns and spread their purchasing over a longer period.

This is a particularly significant point when we look at the category of product being sold. On the Monday leading into Black Friday week, sales for electricals, which carries many high-cost products, were up +24%, Tuesday +16.5%, and Wednesday +17%. On Black Friday itself, sales growth for electricals was just +0.6%, suggesting much of the high-cost purchasing had already been done earlier in the week.

Black Friday Banner

Why wait indeed?

There’s another possible factor that could have exerted some influence here, relating to payday – Black Friday fell on 23 November this year, the earliest it can fall, which means there is still a Friday left in the month. For those who get paid in the last week of the month, Black Friday may have been unfortunately timed. It could mean that Cyber Monday and indeed the full week following it (which some retailers continue to market as ‘Cyber Week’) could feature significant sales activity from that group of shoppers.

We will need to wait until we have the full November data in before we can understand exactly how the sales volumes were dispersed throughout the month.

But; this lower-than-expected result could be a reflection of some of the more macro factors that have been in play throughout the second-half of 2018 – a tough market, growing economic uncertainty etc. After all, Black Friday is THE day of the year when online dominates total retail spending and yet the online spend figure was underwhelming. Or, could it be that the cynicism has got through?

2. Are the deals actually deals?

Yes, cynicism. Hard as it may be to believe, there was a further intensification of cynicism over the fact that Black Friday is essentially a manufactured discount day with little connection to necessity or meaning.

Black Friday campaigns

Buy Nothing Day campaigns

Not that it really seems to impact upon shopper interest in visiting retail sites; in spite of numerous reports of shopper apathy in the lead-in to Black Friday every year, visitor numbers continue to grow. For Monday – Saturday last week, traffic growth to online retail sites was up by double-digit figures compared to the same days in 2017, then was a bit lower on Sunday and Cyber Monday (though still positive).

Black Friday may be an American tradition, but it has now taken on a distinctly British character – everyone complains about Black Friday in the run-up to it, but then we all jump onto retail sites ‘just to have a look’ anyway.

The fact is, Black Friday is just impossible to avoid. The marketing around it has become so loud and so ubiquitous that the event is scored onto every individual’s brain; whether they like shopping or not, they are fully aware what day it is.

But have people started to switch off, have the naysayers’ messages gotten through, were the deals less appealing this year, had discounting already been going on too long in the lead-up to Black Friday (thus lessening retailers’ capacity for grabbing attention by going into sale), or did the spend just get spread more evenly throughout Blackvember?

For now, the jury’s out.

3. Cyber Monday or Blue Monday?

Poor old Cyber Monday has always been potentially on a sticky wicket since Black Friday leap-frogged it to steal away a lot of the spend that otherwise would likely have been earmarked for the last Monday in November / first Monday in December (depending on how the calendar fell; there were reasons why this day would be a big online day each year which we don’t have time to go into here, but it was naturally-occurring rather than forced on the part of retailers).

And it wasn’t only Black Friday that pulled spend forward, it was the extended Black Friday period that led into the big day as well. Consequently Cyber Monday, while still being a big online shopping day, has fallen away in terms of volume. For the eight days we tracked as part of our dedicated campaign this year (Monday 19 – Monday 26 November), Cyber Monday had only the fourth-largest share of revenue for that period.

Almost in recognition of this fall from the sales podium, Cyber Monday had a distinctly blue feel to it this year. While the consensus colour for Black Friday marketing is, well, black, cyber campaigns often used red as the lead colour (the following two examples are from 2017).

Cyber Monday deals

This year however, it looks like red has been reclaimed by Christmas as there was near unanimity on opting for blue as the colour to denote cyber deals.

Cyber Monday blue deals

There was also a tendency for campaigns to start earlier, with Monday 19 November feeling a bit more like a new type of Cyber Monday. IMRG monitors 260 retail websites throughout November; on that Monday leading into Black Friday week in 2017, 36% of retailers tracked had their campaigns live – this year it was 40%, including some very big names who did not go as early last year (note this only includes retailers who had a Black Friday-specific campaign live; those doing non-Black Friday-specific discounting are not included in those percentages).

4. A more glamorous affair

The look and feel of Black Friday has also undergone a bit of a transition, compared with a few years back. 

2014 was the year in which it exploded onto the scene, causing operational havoc for retailers and carriers in the process as the sheer scale of shopper demand caught everyone by surprise. Retail sites struggled under the strain of increased traffic volumes and best practice advice was to strip down pages so they could better cope with the huge upturn in site visitors. However, this year there was less of the plain black background / purely discount rate-focused approach…

20% off deal

…and more focus put on creating the kind of engaging visuals that were unthinkable a few years ago; several even featured video – probably the most intensive media that can be included on a site – on their homepages on Black Friday, likely to be the busiest day of the year for traffic, or brought in elements of gamification:

Mystery discount

For a while, retailers threw the usual rules around best practice out of the window on Black Friday, but the bland marketing has lessened and a bit more of the glitz and glamour that we might associate with retail marketing at other times of year is far more prevalent now.

And so?

Black Friday isn’t just a day, though it is still the largest day of the period in terms of sales volumes by some distance. Instead it has proven itself capable of extending and adapting how it is structured to the extent that it becomes difficult to even say when it begins and when it ends.

The dust is still settling and data being collated on the full period. Until that can all be cross-referenced and analysed, it’s difficult to say exactly what happened during the Black Friday period in 2018.

The early indications are, though, that once again it has evolved – with just a slight early hint that it might have out-scaled itself and be heading toward a gradual decline.

But – it’s too early to really say what happened over the full period; watch this space.

Andy Mulcahy, Strategy and Insight Director, IMRG 

What are your latest Black Friday observations? Let me know on Twitter: @andymulcahy

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